Day of the Dead: London’s best Mexican restaurants and bars, from KOL to La Chingada

Spec-taco-lar: Breddos in Clerkenwell  (Handout)
Spec-taco-lar: Breddos in Clerkenwell (Handout)

The self-evident richness of Mexican culture is occasionally reduced to three days of celebration in the UK. There is Mexican Independence Day, on September 16. There is also Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the 1862 victory of the Mexicans over the larger and rather better equipped French forces, at the Battle of Puebla. And then there is November 2, the Day of the Dead, where those who have passed are remembered, honoured and celebrated.

Despite its morbid name, the day is also one of acknowledging that death is part of the human experience, and as such has an uplifting feel; to mourn would be an insult. As such, on November 2 everywhere from Mexico to Milton Keynes is filled with people tucking into tacos and drinking margaritas in celebration of both Mexican culture and tequila’s tranquilising effects.

Some Americans will tell you the Mexican scene here is nowhere close to what’s on their side of the pond, and while we can’t match them for scale — or, granted, proximity to Mexico — the quality of our restaurants is difficult to dispute. Send them to KOL, have them tuck into a Tigre Tacos in the sultry pink surrounds of Dona, or dash to Decimo for some Spanish-Mexican fusion — after which, they’ll definitely owe you a marg or two. And whether you’ve a grumbling Yank to convince or simply fancy a little exploring yourself, here’s where to find the best of London’s take on Mexican cooking. Buen provecho.

Decimo

 (Charlie McKay)
(Charlie McKay)

Dressed to the nines and loftily perched on the 10th floor of the Standard hotel in Kings Cross, Decimo has the sort of swagger that rubs off on people. You could be a crumbling tower of existential angst, and within seconds of stepping into Decimo’s red velvet, polished wood and cacti-clad dining room, would know exactly who you are and what you want. The former, I cannot vouch for. The latter is a margarita made with Tapatio Blanco tequila, a plate of sweetly smoky marinated red peppers, a pork belly taco and some croquetas de Jamon — which aren’t wholly Mexican but then neither is the head chef here, Peter Sanchez-Iglesias. Sanchez-Iglesias is of Spanish descent and grew up working in his parents’ Italian restaurant in Bristol, but has long been fascinated by Mexican cuisine and has done his research. Accordingly, the menu merges Mexican and Spanish techniques and ingredients to dazzling effect.

10th Floor, 10 Argyle Street, WC1H 8EG, decimo.london

Santo Remedio

 (Nick Hopper)
(Nick Hopper)

Santo Remedio translates as “holy remedy” and it has been one for me, for everything from hangover to heartbreak. It is the first restaurant I visited post the first lockdown, clamouring for their soft-shell crab tacos zinging with fresh Jalepeno peppers, corn on the cob showered in Pecorino and grilled into fudgy sweetness, and a margarita — of course — dusted with a chilli salt rim. It is, for what it’s worth, mostly authentic. Where necessary, ingredients are imported from Mexico — dried chillies, cocoa for the mole, dried corn for the tortillas — but the vegetables, meat and fish are meticulously British. Its owners, chef Edson Diaz-Fuentes and his wife, general manager Natalie, are Mexican, and their warmth, enthusiasm and integrity imbues the spirit of the two restaurants, which are somehow at once colourful and cluttered and reassuringly pared back. Order the chicharrons and the guacamole, truly one of the best in town, and come here on a Saturday for bottomless brunch, if that’s your thing.

152 Tooley Street, SE1 2TU / 55 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3HP, santoremedio.co.uk

Hacha

 (Handout)
(Handout)

Hacha is the home of the mirror margarita, which slips down like a silk slipper and looks like a glass one: crystal clear, created with Tequila Bianco and malic acid, a natural sour that occurs at night-time during the lifestyle of the agave plant. It’s clean, strong and hopelessly ‘grammable. Other sound drinks include a smoky mezcal negroni and a michelada made with their own locally brewed lager. To ensure their food offering matches their drinks for quality and flavour, they’ve outsourced it to Mexican street food specialists Maiz Azul. Maiz Azul’s fare is born of their family recipes and the chillies, corn and maize they import from Mexico. The menu varies but includes dishes like tacos loaded with roasted sweet potatoes or chicken tinga, and cheese chicharron, which is cheese crackling but moreish enough they simply call it cheese crack.

Incidentally, Hacha’s created a non-profit organisation called Equal Measures that provides training, mentorship and workshops to the local BAME community.

378 Kingsland Road, E8 4AA, hachabar.com

Mexa Tacos, Soho

Sonora Taqueria is dead, long live Mexa Tacos, the next restaurant from Sonora Taqueria’s founders Michelle Salazar de la Rocha and Sam Napier. Though the passing of Sonora from Netil Market is much lamented, those flavours have found a new lease of life in Mexa, a cool new outpost located in the cool, new place to be in food: Arcade Food Hall in Centre Point on Tottenham Court Road. The food and drinks are as authentic as you’d expect from two Mexicans, with one notable exception: in Mexico, taquerias and seafood rarely meet. In Mexa, they are bedfellows. The gobernadora quesidilla oozes with sautéed prawns, melted cheese and salsa roja. The ceviche de lobina combines mayo, cured seabass and salsa Negra with a crisp toastada. The less pescatarian inclined can tuck into grilled cactus or confit pork . The drinks are short and strong, and the atmosphere — well, it is a food hall, so it’s ‘buzzy’ (read busy and fast paced). If that’s not what you’re looking for, get a seat at Mexa’s counter, where you can immerse yourself in the cooking, cocktail-shaking and excellent service.

Arcade Food Hall, 103-105 New Oxford Street, WC1A 1DB, arcadefoodhall.com

El Pastor

When it opened in Borough Market in 2017, El Pastor was the second restaurant — taqueria, technically — to show London Mexican food didn’t mean floppy, fedora-sized flat breads and brown mush covered in cheddar. The first, of course, was Wahaca, which is still a good thing. Sam and Eddie Hart — of Barrafina fame — built on the groundwork laid by the deservedly popular chain together with Crispin Somerville who, like Sam Hart, lived for years in Mexico City. Their knowledge of and passion for the cuisine continues to shine in the nutty tortillas, made fresh every day with heritage corn; the sprightly guacamole, singing with heat and onion; and their tacos, topped with cool cubes of tuna, crisp cheesy mushroom or pork shoulder slow roasted for 24 hours. The portions are generous for the price, and the range of salsas and sauces exceptional. Don’t miss the pinto beans — the deep, earthy, meaty richness of which belies their unassuming façade — and their extensive tequila list.

SE1, W1F, N1C, tacoselpastor.co.uk

KOL

 (HDG Photography)
(HDG Photography)

KOL is a Marylebone-based, Michelin-starred take on Mexican food (with prices to match) – but don’t let that faze you. Though meals here start with a broth and unfold over six, eight or nine courses, they are every inch as Mexican as their creator Santiago Lastra, who spent a year eating and drinking around his homeland and ran the Noma-Mexico pop-up prior to opening. Ingredients include douglas fir and fermented blackcurrant, but Lastra uses these to emulate the limes and avocadoes he avoids flying in, preferring instead to champion British produce. Combined with the carefully sourced dried ingredients he does import — chilli, corn and cocoa, which can be shipped rather than flown — these are a hymn to the hot, loud, multi-layered flavours one associates with Mexico. For size, try their deep, dark mole made with purple carrots and those blackcurrants, and langoustine tacos tingling with smoked chilli. If, after that, you still need convincing of KOL’s Mexican-ness, head to the downstairs mezcaleria and dive into a their heady range of mezcal and tequila cocktails. You won’t have any questions left by the time you’ve finished their signature tequila martini.

9 Seymour Street, W1H 7BA, kolrestaurant.com

Mestizo

One doesn’t generally associate pitchers of frozen strawberry margarita with authentic Mexican fare, but Mestizo belies its Tex Mex appearances. While true, it’s heavy on the cheesy, fried dishes, the ingredients are meticulously sourced and there are some upmarket takes — tacos with black corn mushrooms or courgette flowers, for instance — hidden amongst the melted cheese. Besides, Mestizo does fried, refried and cheese-smothered food very well, which is just necessary, sometimes. After the freshness of some cool, zingy guac, dive straight into the potato and cheese stuffed flautas, or the fried chihuahua cheese sticks lounging on a pool on tomatillo salsa. Soak up a Tequila Sunrise with a crepas de cuitlacoche — mushrooms sauteed with onion, stuffed in pancakes and smothered in a white and cheese sauce. Not for every night, perfect for some.

103 Hampstead Road, NW1 3EL, london.mestizomx.com

Breddos Tacos

 (Handout)
(Handout)

When it first flung open the doors to their tiny, colourfully casual restaurant in Clerkenwell, Breddos Tacos made its name by being wildly inauthentic. Tacos came with crunchy nut sweetbread or kung pao chicken. People were confused, but they weren’t disappointed. These days... well, it’s not exactly gospel, but it has chilled out a bit. There’s a taco with smoked aubergine and halloumi, but there’s also one with baja fish or mushroom and mole, and a tuna tostada with bite, crunch and vim. All are brilliant. As for drinks, they’ve an extensive range of mezcal as well as your standard tequilas and a pretty decent wine on tap for a fiver which, given the expensive dish here is £15 for an aged onglet complete with rice, beans and three fresh tortillas, makes Breddos Tacos blissfully cheap.

82 Goswell Road, EC1V 7DB, breddostacos.com

Doña

 (@pasco.photography)
(@pasco.photography)

Doña is first and foremost a female-led mezcal bar, founded by Thea Cumming and Lucie Massey, the women behind London Mezcal Week and Dangerous Don mezcal. That’s why I go, and it’s why you should too — but while you’re there, sipping a Margaret (margarita, but more mature), order some tacos from Tigre Tacos. They are sensationally good. I first stumbled upon Tigre Tacos at Nine Lives in Bermondsey where, despite having a five-course meal already lined up, my friend insisted we order one pre-dinner, such was the reputation. Head chef Ramon Ramos draws his inspiration from southern California, where Mexican street food is a staple. There’s no meat, but you’re unlikely to miss it once you’ve tucked into a tostoda topped with courgettes and hibiscus flowers, laced with their own salsa verde, or their grilled king prawns with roasted pineapple salsa. Prices are decent — £8 for two well stuffed tacos — and the surroundings a soft, sultry medley of pink.

92 Stoke Newington High Street, N16 7NY, bardonalondon.com

La Chingada

 (Handout)
(Handout)

With its high stools, comic sans signage and colourful interior, La Chingada is a place you might bypass unless you knew better. Now you know better. The owner, Walter Optiz, lives, eats and breathes his taqueria, creating a special each Sunday, which those in-the-know flock for — especially in summer when those stools come outside and one can soak up the sunshine as well as a michelada, and the refried beans and melted cheese on white bread. This is called a molett, and elevates beans on toast from basic to banging. There’s a strong selection of salsas, including a vibrant salsa verde that must be drizzled on everything not already slathered in arbol chilli or chipotle salsa. The chorizo taco is the must order, as is the al pastor — not least because you can see it on a spit behind the counter, roasting and sizzling and filling the restaurant with the aromatic promise of something tasty.

12 Rotherhithe New Road, SE16 2AA, lachingada.co.uk

Tacos Padre

Nicholas Fitzgerald is as Mexican as he sounds, which is to say he’s not Mexican at all — but he is a great chef, with a passion for Mexican food. This passion was born of a stint at Pujol, a celebrated restaurant in Mexico City, and nurtured and nourished by his subsequent travels around the country. He’s brought specialist Mexican ingredients, which you can buy yourself at his nearby stall in Borough Market, and he’s brought the flair of his extensive experience in restaurants. Fitzgerald’s lunch fare is casual, though considered. If you’re at Borough Market on a busy day, it’s the perfect pitstop. Yet it’s at dinner (available from May to October, because it’s outdoors) that he comes into his own, with oysters divorciados — less divisive than it sounds — a red mullet mextalapique with fennel pico de gallo amnd a tres leches cake with a caramel made from goat’s milk sourced from the Market.

Borough Market, SE1 9AG, boroughmarket.org.uk

Sonora Taquería

 (Handout)
(Handout)

The downside of Sonora Taquería is that it’s takeaway only. That’s it. That’s the downside, and if you’re a takeaway fan, then it isn’t even a downside. The upsides include.. everything else. The beef barbacoa (a mix of short rib and beef cheek, bright coriander and a hot salsa called tatemade); the carnitas (shredded roast pork with pickled onions and salsa); and the cheese crust extra — just about all of it. Sonora Taquería is only open at weekends — they count Friday as the weekend, as we all secretly do — and once they’ve sold out, they’ve sold out. This means eating tacos at 10am when they open, before the queue is too hellish, becomes a serious consideration.

13-23 Westgate Street, E8 3RL, sonorataqueria.com